Open Space Configuration - Possibilities of Communication

Posted on 10/02/2007 by Rajeev Singh

Are you one of those people who dream of an office space or are already in it at your software development shop? If so - you won't like what you are about to read, but I want you to continue reading. A Big Frontier - But Rewards are High There's no doubt that offices and cubicles create silos and inhibit communication. Every time I hear something like, "I/we have an open door policy" or "But, we do communicate", a shiver of despair shoots through me and it usually ends with a sigh. Really? No, it's not that bad, yet. But I'll be there if I continue seeing the ugly walls and partitions for a few more years. Sometimes, I wonder how this displeasing concept of cubicles caught on the frenzy in the first place. Beyond just the questionable aesthetics, offices and cubicles are a waste of space and a barrier to communication. I think it is the best way to stifle creativity and productivity. Here are some of the things that I have observed and heard from other people:

  • It reduces face to face communication.
  • Impromptu meetings are almost non-existent. As a result, formal meetings go up in number.
  • Face to face communication goes down drastically. I have been in both cubicle and office space in the past and just the sheer number of emails that I get is a reflection of how bad the communication gets. Things that could have been discussed in end up in emails.
  • It is hard to look around for people. You can't see if people are on their desk or not.
  • It usually leaves very little space for collaboration. Meetings rooms become a luxury and their availability a matter of luck.
  • There are other higher order magnitude benefits that are listed here
The challenges posed are monumental not only in the waste they create, but also in the resistance to change that it faces. The alternative is Open Space Configuration, which in all respects is not only better but also very configurable. I will explain a little later what I mean by configurable, after listing a few benefits of an open space configuration:
  • There's more visibility into who's around and in the team in general.
  • Team members communicate more. The need for formal meetings goes down.
  • Easier accessibility to teammates.
  • There are better chances of hearing conversations that one should participate in but would have missed otherwise.
  • It provides more room for daily stand-up meetings.
  • It becomes harder to slack at work. Procrastinators benefit the most out of open space configuration.
  • There's less waste of movement.
  • All this results in a whole lot more collaboration.
Another big benefit is that the open space configuration is flexible, which allows the team members to change the layout more frequently, based upon the changing structure of the team. This is what I meant by 'configurable'. If members move from one team to another within a projects, an open space layout is conducive to adjustments.
Some Possibilities in Open Space
The first picture that flashes for most people with Open Space Configuration is a big room with a large conference table with some chairs and that's it. Emotions run high and are all over the map:
  • I feel demoted and less important.
  • I'll be envious of people who have cubes and offices.
  • Getting an office was a motivation for me. What would it be now?
  • It'll be chaotic. I'll feel frazzled and won't be able to deal with the crazy environment.
  • I am always being watched.
  • How will I make private phone calls?
  • It'll be a pig sty.
  • I am going to find a job where they have offices and cubes.
Here's how I, personally, felt when I moved from an office to an open space:
  • Equal - My managers and 'super' bosses had way bigger offices with beautiful window views and all I had was 4 windowless walls and a door with a peek hole. In open space the team shares the same window views. A sense of equality creeps up.
  • Privileged - So much news that otherwise would have died out behind office walls or in email threads get communicated in open space. I get pulled into discussions that are otherwise held behind office walls. Being privy to such discussions is a very special feeling.
  • Liberated - There's really nothing much to maintain in an open space. All the junk that otherwise piles up in cubes and offices just doesn't survive in open spaces. Open spaces are socially maintained spaces. If you don't throw your junk away, someone else will.
  • Learned - There's so many new skills I learn in an open space environment from observing other people and how they work that I wish I didn't waste all these years sitting in cubes and offices. A good example is the usage of Post-it Note stationery. I grew up not knowing what it was and got introduced to it when I was about 22. For many years after that I just used it to take quick notes. In the last 2-3 years, however, by observing other people use them in different ways, I have learned to use Post-it Notes for so many other things including information gathering and organization.
Somehow, open space conjures up an image of one large table in a room with hundreds of people sitting around it staring at each other. Like any other concept that can be misunderstood or exaggerated, this one has got its share of bad publicity too. An open space can be configured in so many different ways that to make an unfavorable judgment about it without trying is outright insensible and imprudent. Just for reference, the pictures on the right are some of the different layouts that I have worked in and have found to be very effective for communication, team building, creativity, and my overall professional well being. Some more pictures:

Break the Mold
For those of you who are still skeptics, I would highly recommend to read Organization and Architecture of Innovation - Managing the Flow of Technology, authored by Thomas J. Allen and Gunther W. Henn. It's link is available in my recommended list of book on the right side. A few of the things that these authors talk about are just phenomenal. For example, we all recognize the importance of communication but don't quite associate it's importance with the end goal. Thomas and Gunther talk about Communication for Coordination, Communication for Information, and Communication for Inspiration. While most of us are aware of the importance of communication for coordination and information, we seldom see its contribution for inspiration to be creative. Some of the research cited in the book is also very telling, e.g. the probability of communication goes down drastically with the increase in physical distance between individuals. Another good research is that the probability of telephonic or IM conversation is strongly correlated to the probability of seeing that person face to face. This means that chances of an individual picking up a phone to talk to an individual that (s)he doesn't see in person are almost as little. Visual Communication also has been cited as very important - seeing a person one can be reminded of what (s)he was planning to talk to this person to and, most importantly, to get visual feedback. Often in the industry people solve abstract and complex problems that require visual communication.
The rewards and returns for going open space are so high that I now understand why a lot of labs, research & development centers, and even custom software development companies invest time, energy, and money into designing office spaces that we just don't give any thought beyond uttering "Cool!".
A few days ago, my colleagues directed me to two resources online that I would recommend reading to anyone considering going open. Death of Cubicle; the Open Office Experiment was an experience report from Agile 2007 Conference, and How does Radical Collocation Help a Team Succeed is a 2000 ACM Conference with lots of research data and quantitative measurements.
If you are aware of any other work environment that has gone open recently, I would be very interested in getting your opinion and feedback on how it went, benefits, etc.

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